This album is smooth and sexy from the neo-soul pioneer D’Angelo, with his debut record Brown Sugar, released in 1995, he essentially brought the genre into the mainstream arena. The artist was the producer, arranger and songwriter for the whole album, as well as performing the instrumentation on every track himself. D’Angelo states Prince as an inspiration because ‘I was one of those guys who read the album credits and I realized that Prince was a true artist. He wrote, produced, and performed, and that's the way I wanted to do it’ (Onnell (1997), pp. 103–105.). Influences like Prince are present throughout the album but by no means is D’Angelo imitating, he stands on his own two feet with this phenomenal piece of work.
D’Angelo is showcasing his talent on Brown Sugar, the title track kicks things off in such smooth style, it’s sexy as hell and definitely one for the babymakin’ playlist. The bass is what can only be described as phat, with a PH; there’s sexy harmonies, slick vocals and classy keys. What’s great about the sound on this record is the live feel it produces, there is an atmosphere of both a jam session and well-arranged musical sequences. In the title track, D’Angelo refers to his love of weed by singing ‘see we be making love constantly/That’s why my eyes are a shade blood burgundy’, which is an ongoing theme through some of the album. However, he talks about different themes of love, both the sensuality of making love and his spiritual love. These themes are present in ‘Higher’, where D’Angelo uses a gospel sound with amazing backing vocals and a cracking organ instrumentation.
It’s hard to fault D’Angelo at all on this album, he is a wonderfully creative and talented musician and it really shows on every song. I’m a particular fan of ‘Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine’, it has more of an R&B sound but, once again, has great harmonies; it’s also got some great beats and a delicious guitar. There’s a brilliant cover of Smokey Robinson’s ‘Cruisin’’ from his 1979 album Where There’s Smoke…, but D’Angelo updates it with a more contemporary sound during the 90s that doesn't sound outdated to this day, and it’s soulful as hell. There’s some jazz-funky keyboards on ‘Cruisin’’, and every moment of singing sounds incredible, the falsetto is so damn good (Prince and Smokey who?).
The neo-soul that blissfully oozes from your headphones or speakers for this album is an ever-pleasant fusion of contemporary R&B and classic soul music; there’s elements of funk, the quiet storm jazz movement, and hip-hop. There are only a limited few of musicians who get credited on this album, most of the work is all from the brilliant mind of D’Angelo, but on ‘Smooth’ bassist Larry Grenadier, guitarist Mark Whitfield, and drummer Gene Lake all contribute something exceptional. The track ‘Lady’ was also a collaboration with fellow neo-soul legend Raphael Saadiq, and he really gets to leave his mark because he produced, wrote, and featured on the track; Saadiq plays both the bass and guitar on this song, creating some wonderful riffs and adlibs.
The entire album is clearly a masterpiece of musical artistry, but despite being 22 years old now, it stands the test of time and still feels both fresh and organic. Brown Sugar is worth re-discovering, it sounds on point and will make you want to check out more of D’Angelo’s work. Both the Voodoo and Black Messiah albums are excellent records, plus rumours of a new release are on the horizon, it’s bound to be another cracking addition to the man’s small but consistently excellent discography.